There was only one ancient city in the Americas that ever truly rivaled the size, scale, and power of its Old World counterparts--Teotihuacán, the City of the Gods. And today, it's the largest ghost town in the world. Still home to the world's third largest pyramid, this mysterious city was once a metropolis many times larger and more populous than the biggest Mayan and Aztecan cities ever built. Now, Josh Bernstein heads to central Mexico to check it out. He'll soar above the ancient city, explore its obsidian mines, make prehistoric tools, and try to decode its impressive murals in a quest to understand who built the City of the Gods, how it became so powerful, and, most mysterious of all, why it was abandoned.
Teotihuacan: "Teotihuacan should not be confused with Tenochtitlán, although both were built near what is now Mexico City, Mexico. Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec empire, built around 1325 A.D. Teotihuacan—called Teo for short—was built much, much earlier, during the first two centuries A.D. Teotihuacan isn't even its real name. That's just what the Aztecs called it when they found the abandoned city many centuries later. The name Teotihuacan is commonly translated as 'City of the Gods' but it also can mean 'The City Where Men Become Gods' and so, with images of a divine transformation in mind, I head off to the site to begin my exploration."
Of Warriors and Victims: "I'm now at the on-site museum with Dr. Mike Spence, who's pointing out the remains of some elite soldiers who were sacrificed here at Teo. Fascinating. Mike says they were found buried with special jawbone pendants--not real jawbones, but replicas which indicated their status and prowess in battle. So if these men were sacrificed, it would seem that the state and/or ruler had considerable power. Their bones support this--many of the soldiers apparently came from far-off lands and traveled to Teo to become part of their soldier elite. Pretty powerful city."
15 Degrees 25 Minutes East of North: "I love unsolved mysteries, phenomenon which despite all our cleverness and technology are still baffling. I'm learning that there's one here at Teo... All of the buildings, all of the roads, all of the walls--all items with a north-south line to them--have been aligned to 15 degrees 25 minutes east of north. I've confirmed this with my compass. The mystery, obviously, is what does this mean? Why were they so precisely aligning their world to this coordinate? How did they measure it? I'm afraid I have to leave this mystery unresolved, but it's still something to wonder about.... And it definitely reinforces the idea that the builders of Teotihuacan may have had influence and insight well beyond what we might expect."
Pyramids: "There are many, many pyramids here at Teo. The two largest are called the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, these are not solid stone. Rather, they're a framework of stone and wood filled in with dirt and then covered with a stone façade. Back in the day, they had a layer of plaster on them which was beautifully painted and decorated. Today, though, they're still impressive and worth exploring. Linda Manzanilla is taking me deep under the Pyramid of the Sun, where a narrow shaft twists and turns downward, almost all the way to the center of the pyramid above. It's a long 300 feet and as we get deeper in, we need to be careful about losing the ability to breathe--the limited oxygen in here can only support our presence for an hour or so."
There's a bit of debate over this tunnel, by the way. "Some say it was a natural lava tube which was held sacred by the people of Teo for many of the same reasons that the Maya later made their caves sacred--it was an entrance to the underworld. Linda, however, says this tunnel was carved by men, not Mother Nature--but it was still sacred for the same religious reasons. And the four chambers at the end of the tunnel represented/mirrored the four sections of the city above."
Muons, Anyone?: "Okay, I've never heard of Muons before. Muons are subatomic particles which, apparently, penetrate solid objects. This detector--placed in what is clearly the most important spot in this pyramid--is here to help archaeologists discover possible chambers or cavities in the pyramid above. It was just installed and still needs some adjustments before it is fully operational, but it's exciting to think how modern science is helping us explore ancient sites. Perhaps this next year will bring some new discoveries at Teo."
Obsidian: "I first flintknapped obsidian about 18 years ago. It's an amazing substance--the molecular structure of this volcanic glass allows one to create an edge from it that's only ONE molecule thin. So if you took an obsidian blade and a surgical scalpel and put them under an electron microscope, the obsidian blade would look like a straight line. The scalpel would look like the Rocky Mountains. The cut of obsidian is SO fine, in fact, it barely leaves a scar. That's why doctors today use if for eye surgery and at other times when scarring is a concern. Anyway, Dr. Ken Hirth is here to show me where the obsidian of Teotihuacan came from and what makes it so special. Within minutes, it's obvious--I've never seen such a beautiful, brilliant green obsidian. Turns out, this quality--the green iridescence--was revered and gave Teotihuacan's rulers a highly coveted resources to control and trade. And this machine Ken created to make obsidian scalpels--I've never seen anything like it. It and the blades it produces are amazing."
Propaganda: "Turns out obsidian wasn't the only thing the rules of the city controlled. According to archaeologist Kim Goldsmith, the rulers controlled the artwork depicted on the public and private walls of the city. Even within a person's home the "State" mandated what images appeared and what messages were reinforced. Although only one percent of the murals at Teo remain today, Kim tells me that archaeologists believe most of the messages were of power, strength, and control. Kind of like the images one might see in a totalitarian regime. Or, to a lesser extent, the way we might have an American flag or picture of the president in a public building--only in this case, this was done in homes, too."
Ulama: "Hip Ulama is one of the oldest sports in the world. Today, it's not played near Teotihuacan, but it is still played on the western coast of Mexico where a local group of enthusiasts keep the sport alive. The goal is to hit an 8-pound ball of solid rubber across the court's center line, the way one might hit a volleyball over a net. They serve, we return. We serve, they return. Except in Ulama you can't use your hands--only your hips. The first team to get 8 points wins. Sounds simple enough but, let me tell you, when that ball hits you, it hurts. BIG TIME. Apparently, in the old days, they'd wear some sort of padding to protect them. Me, I got nothing. So when I learn that some people died from playing Ulama--kidney and spleen damage were common--I'm a little more concerned about the bruises I'm getting. I'm also learning that even the sports of Teotihuacan were controlled--the winning team was sacrificed to honor the gods and the state."
Lime, Anyone?: "Today, the landscape around Teotihuacan is mostly flat-expect for the pyramids, of course. But 2,000 years ago, this land was heavily forested. Archaeo-climatologists believe that many of the trees were cut down to create lime from the limestone. The lime was used to plaster the walls of the pyramids to create frescoes and murals. In effect, the city was truly smearing their landscape--and their source of life--all over their walls. This MAY have been a major factor in the collapse of Teo. We don't know. But it's a fascinating possibility. It's also fascinating to me to see how hot lime gets when it's combined with water. That's a major reaction!"
The End of Teo: "No one really knows what brought about the end of Teotihuacan. The overpopulation of the city, the deforestation of the land, the polarization of the classes and wealth--all of these things may have contributed in some way to the collapse of this culture. It may also have been a revolt or revolution. Linda points out that fires destroyed the key buildings and administrative centers of the city--possibly indicating an overthrow of some sort. The truth is, we don't really know. Yet. But in time, archaeologists may be able to decipher the cryptic language of the murals and archaeology may finally be able to determine what destroyed the city of the gods."